My Life with Leopards

The true story of a man and his incredible relationship with two super predators.

When two six-week-old leopard cubs, born in captivity in Zimbabwe, arrive at the Londolozi private game reserve in South Africa, 22-year-old game ranger Graham Cooke is assigned to take care of them. Based in an unfenced tented camp in the Londolozi bush, where lions, hyenas and other leopards abound, Graham’s first task is to gain the cubs’ trust before he begins to guide them towards release in the wild where they can assume their role as Africa’s most efficient predators.

After weeks of infinite patience and gentleness in his interactions with them, Graham is eventually accepted into the cubs’ small family unit and, with a growing understanding of their behaviour, he finds ways of communicating with them. Slowly, he begins to introduce the young leopards to their new environment.

Tapping into their individual personalities, Graham finds himself particularly drawn to the reserved and aloof little female whose wariness contrasts sharply with her brother’s easy-going nature. But, over time, both cubs come to recognise him as their protector and friend and he forms a unique bond with the young leopards which enables him to gain unparalleled insights into their development and behaviour.

When, a year later, the cubs are relocated to the Zambian wilderness in preparation for their release into the South Luangwa Valley, Graham has to face the hardest task of all: to let go of his young charges and allow them to revert to a wild existence where he is unable to control their fate.

Extract from the book.

'I woke early the next morning to the loud chirring calls of a large flock of guineafowl who were busying themselves with finding food just behind my tent. Still somewhat groggy, I pushed the blankets aside and forced myself to get up.

Yawning heavily after too little sleep, I grabbed a pair of shorts, unzipped the fly screen of the tent and stepped outside to make coffee. Leaving the canvas flaps of the tent hanging loose, I walked towards the kitchen tent, pausing briefly next to the thorny walls of the cubs’ enclosure. Tonight it would contain two small leopards. I smiled as I shuffled towards the kitchen tent, my boots kicking up a fine train of sand behind me. The cool air brushed against my face, carrying faint traces of the scent of wood smoke and a musty hint of buffalo dung, reminding me of a derelict cattle farm I had once come across in the suburbs of Johannesburg.

To the left of the kitchen the marula tree was beginning to reveal the onset of winter. Its mottled bark seemed paler and autumn-coloured leaves scattered on the ground below the canopy crunched beneath my feet like crisps. I entered the large square army tent that served as my kitchen, retrieved an enamel mug and dug my hand deep into a near-empty carton of rusks. Then, after spooning some powdered milk and sugar into the mug, I went back outside to fill up the kettle at the water cart that was parked just behind the kitchen. Across the clearing, closer to the donga, the fireplace was dull and dormant after last night’s blaze, but when I poked the charred remains with my toe a weary puff of smoke curled into the air. I headed down the donga to gather some kindling and, fashioning the brittle twigs and dry leaves in wigwam style over the sooty embers, gently began blowing the fire back to life.
It was a stunning morning. A troop of vervet monkeys were dashing along the branches of a russet bushwillow, screeching like children in a school playground and tumbling over one another at breakneck speed. Paragliding into camp from the nearby trees, a pair of yellow-billed hornbills hopped forward on ungainly legs to join the glossy starling demanding a share of my meagre breakfast as I dunked another rusk into the steaming coffee. I relented and threw them some crumbs before getting up and dragging my heels in camp, trying to keep busy as the morning finally spilled into the early afternoon and I made my way towards the thatch-covered carport, got into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition.
‘Right then,’ I mumbled to myself as the engine came to life. ‘Let’s go do this.’ I reversed the Land Rover out from under the thatch, changed gears and, manoeuvring the vehicle on to the road, I drove out of camp.
A herd of impala and wildebeest were grazing on the grass in a clearing as I rolled down a small hill. Pausing briefly to follow the movement of my vehicle with their dewy eyes until they were satisfied there was no threat, the herds resumed feeding on the nutritious stems. Further north towards the treeline the road grew softer beneath the thick tyres as I approached the main dry river course in the reserve.

The Xabene was flanked by tall stands of apple-leaf, leadwood and jackalberry trees that cast their dappled shade over the sand as it curved its way through the bush. Changing into a lower gear, I veered off the road and, driving across the camel-coloured sandy bottom of the dry river, I scrutinised the trees for a flash of spotted fur as the wheels churned laboriously through the soft river soil. About fifty metres down, I climbed out of the riverbed at Strip Road, heading towards the main road where I turned left. Increasing my speed, I turned right at the last corner to emerge at the cusp of a large clearing of short grass where the recently tarred Londolozi private airstrip sweated mirage-like beneath the hot afternoon sun.
Ahead of me small crowd of people had gathered in anticipation of the incoming airplane, and recognising most of them as fellow staff members, I paused. A windsock blustered forlornly in the whisper of a breeze and I felt my ears buzzing as a strong scent of tar evaporating from the shimmering runway filled my nostrils. Far in the distance, I heard a faint droning that sounded like a bee humming on a lazy summer’s afternoon. Still stationary, I searched the cloudless sky and, noticing the pinprick of a tiny metal shape coming closer, I suddenly felt nervous. Like butterflies caught in a glass jar, all my exhilaration and misgivings were fluttering in my stomach. They were here. Taking a deep breath I eased my foot off the brake and pushed the pedal all the way down. The Land Rover lurched forward and, bumping over the uneven soil, I drove forward to meet them.'

Crowing of the Roosters

When Nomfusi Yekani wakes early in the morning of April 27 1994 to walk with hundreds of others to vote at a polling station in Somerset West during South Africa's first democratic elections, she looks back on a life that began half a century earlier 'in a beautiful place' in the Eastern Cape.

Her story moves from childhood freedom to the loss of it, first in the shackles of marriage and then in domestic service in the hostile environment that the Cape province represented for a black person without a pass.

This is a true story of a life balanced between tradition and the oppression of apartheid in the slow forward surge of time.

Life with Darwin and Other Baboons

Life With Darwin and Other Baboons deals with the work of Karin Saks who, through fostering orphaned baby baboons and attempting to rehabiliate them back into the wild, had a unique opportunity to observe and record the activities of a number of wild baboon troops.

Through her daily interaction with the baboons, she offers fresh perspectives to our knowledge of an animal society that is as complex as it is well-ordered.

The book addresses key baboon issues and presents a new and accessible look at a species that is often maligned and ridiculed.


author & wildlife writer

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